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5 forwards Maple Leafs could target in ‘second wave’ of UFA market

TORONTO — One hundred sixty-one signings for 294 contract years and $783.6 million later, Kyle Dubas is surveying the free agents unclaimed and seeing an occasion to strike.

That is why the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager said Wednesday evening that it is “far too early” to start comparing his 2021-22 roster to his 2020-21 group that ripped through a highly irregular regular season.

“We still have a good amount of cap space. We are still waiting for the second wave of the forward market to sort itself out. I probably think it is a better question for me to answer in a few days or closer to camp, just in terms of my expectation,” said Dubas, minutes after shoring up his crease and gathering six maybes and hopefuls.

“We have a great opportunity here for a forward that maybe doesn’t get what they want in the first go-around, looks at our group and what has been moved on in free agency, and now can look at this and say, ‘Geez, that is a pretty good opportunity for me,’ particularly as a winger, to play with our forward group as it is currently constructed.”

Particularly a left winger.

Particularly someone who can bring a portion of what the Edmonton Oilers’ Zach Hyman used to bring to Toronto’s top six, at a fraction of the cost.

Best case? The Leafs already have that guy.

Maybe a soon-to-be 20-year-old Nick Robertson becomes an instant phenom or a discount-taking, try-hard Michael Bunting breaks out at the perfect time.

But that’s a heck of an ask for a five-foot-nine kid whose first pro season was derailed by injury and a pandemic. Or a late-blooming 25-year-old who has skated in a grand total of 26 NHL games, few of them meaningful.

So many of the ideal substitutes and Toronto UFA targets — Jaden Schwartz, Nick Foligno, Mikael Granlund — signed lucrative deals Wednesday too rich for an athlete to pass up and too long for Dubas to match. (We suspect Brandon Saad and Kyle Palmieri, the best wingers standing, do the same.)

So, the executive sits back with approximately $3.5 million in cap space and plays the waiting game, knowing talent without employment will get antsy.

In the 2020 off-season, proven “second wave” UFA wingers Mike Hoffman and Mikael Granlund inked one-year contracts for much less than their projected value. Florida snagged Anthony Duclair for $1.7 million. Montreal secured playoff difference-maker Corey Perry for $750,000.

“The right player will think this is the right opportunity for them. We would also like to head into the year with some cap space and let it accrue so we can stay flexible as we go through the season,” Dubas said.

“We will stay flexible, take some risks on guys that need a second chance — or we feel are just about to pop — and try to bring them in here and get the most out of them playing alongside our group.”

Let’s name names.

Tomas Tatar: Of all the UFA wingers still on the board, none produced more points per game in 2021 than the 30-year-old Tatar (0.6), who was the Montreal Canadiens’ leading scorer as recently as 2019-20. A proven offensive weapon and power-play threat with positive underlying metrics (58.9 CF%), Tatar already has six 20-goal campaigns on his résumé. So why was he healthy scratched by two teams in two Stanley Cup Finals?

Nick Ritchie: A big body (six-foot-two, 234 pounds). A first-round pick. A local boy. And a project now looking to join his third franchise at age 25. The inconsistent Ritchie went unqualified as an RFA by the rival Boston Bruins but could still be an asset to many a middle six. He brings a rugged element the Leafs are not flush with.

Marcus Johansson: A 20-goal, 50-point asset for Washington before concussions and a slew of sweater changes derailed his career, the 30-year-old Swede fits the mould of a project Dubas would be willing to take on for cheap.

Alex Galchenyuk: Dubas has said the door is open on a Galchenyuk return, and the determined winger certainly showed flashes alongside John Tavares and William Nylander. He’s exploring his options, and even the team that drafted him (Montreal) is said to have some level of interest in a reunion. His last contract was one year at $1.05 million. Would he take that again?

Danton Heinen: A capable if unspectacular two-way winger, the 26-year-old Heinen peaked way back in 2017-18, when he put up 47 points with the Bruins. He did not receive his $2.775 million qualifying offer from the Ducks and will need to take a pay cut to prove himself. Should be motivated.

These are the type of sneaky good finds Dubas will be considering. Some pan out (Galchenyuk, Tyler Ennis). Some don’t (Jimmy Vesey). And if the GM doesn’t see value, he’ll be content to let his cap room grow and use it at another all-in trade deadline.

“Maybe we weren’t in the big-game hunting section of it here, but that is fine with us,” Dubas said.

“Whether it is using our remaining cap space to sign a free agent in the coming days or whether it is through trade, we are going to continue to look at any avenues we can to improve the roster. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility for us.”

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